Paul Prospero, a detective with a unique skillset, is called towards a piece of fan mail as though the sirens themselves would emerge the moment he sliced the licked adhesive apart. A boy named Ethan Carter writes to him, detailing some dark happenings in the hidden countryside town he resides in. Paul realizes that Ethan wouldn't have chosen him if these dark things wouldn't require his particular abilities. His last case shall be this one, Paul decides, and sets out to the breezy hillsides of Red Creek Valley. Within minutes of arriving, he comes across a series of potentially deadly traps in the woods just on the outskirts of town. This case will be anything but ordinary for most people, but Paul Prospero is used to it.The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
takes some elements out of Murdered: Soul Suspect
’s playbook and gives the player the ability to piece together crime scenes through supernatural ability. Whenever an important element is visible, you can interact with it to see Paul’s thoughts on how it may all fit in with the current scene. Sometimes he’ll even be able to locate a missing object by peeking through a ‘magic mirror’-like thought process. By arranging the scene to be exactly as it was at the moment of death, Paul can see the entire final minutes of the dead through a series of flashbacks. All of this is taught to the player by letting them discover each of the functions on their own. With no tutorial some players may find themselves a bit lost at first, but once you've gotten the first case down you've pretty much gotten the hang of all the skills you’ll need to progress.
Through scraps of Ethan’s writing laying around, we learn that he’s a pretty creative kid. If you’d ever asked him, he’d probably tell you his inspirations were Poe, Chandler, Lovecraft, and Verne. With this talent comes the evidence of a disturbed mind and a town with a secret underground some people are all too eager to get to. Some of his writing fits in with the events in town that you learn about through the paranormal mystery puzzles and newspaper clippings sitting around. There was an ever-present sensation in the pit of my stomach that something was up and it probably didn't want me here.
There was a lot of time to ponder the events of each case and how they related to the big picture, thanks to the sheer size of Red Creek Valley’s map. While not a fully open world, you can get to most places through a handful of paths and practicing a little mental triangulation as you work your way around. Nooks and crannies leading to quiet spots in the shade of the forest or some tossed away rotted wood planks that once upheld something or other are all over the place. I had the option to run everywhere, but I found myself utterly entranced by the almost photorealistic, if slightly dreamy, visual work done by The Astronauts. Every few steps was another gorgeous vista overlooking a lake. Every rock looked sharp enough to scrape my skin on. It’s hard to believe that this was all done in Unreal Engine 3. If you've ever looked at a single screenshot of the game, the visual fidelity remains that consistent for every backdrop.
Several times I sat down under a tree for a few moments, watching as the knee-high grass whipped around in the wind. I closed my eyes and took in the soundstage. So perfectly crafted, small sonic details most games don’t have the time, money, or the will to reproduce so crisply. Had I not been watching the vivid countryside dancing before me just seconds before, I would have sworn I was listening to a Chris Watson
sound collage. Positional audio is one thing that developers rarely
get right, but it is one of the most essential elements in establishing a truly enveloping sense of place. When a crow cawed above my head, the sound moved realistically as I turned to face the source. Bug screeches, bending branches, rattling metal constructs, all represented with care. Headphones are an absolute must.
It isn't all purely idyllic, only a handful of shortcomings stain the pages of Ethan’s story. The first issue comes from the voice acting, which is about as stale as moldy bread. Paul himself performs the gravely-voiced detective role just fine and Ethan sounds much like a kid his age would, but any of the other supporting characters sound very off. The character models are another problem, their design and models not matching up to the picturesque backgrounds. They are stiffly animated, weirdly textured, and lack a lot of depth which would help them blend in more with the backgrounds. I won’t say it’s something like the toons sitting in a bar with Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
, but it is very noticeable. Some may find the game length too short, but I personally did not find this to be a big deal.
At a short 3 to 5 hours, Ethan’s adventure is over relatively shortly. But the game is always presenting you with something beautiful to look at, something suspicious to chew on, or some puzzle to solve. It even changes up the mechanics here and there to help keep things feeling fresh, avoiding too much repetition in the more game-y mechanics. This is a game which can be enjoyed by those who want a little meat on the bones they find leaning against a tree in the forest, reminding me a lot more of Ether One
(a game you must check out
if you enjoy Ethan Carter, by the way) than Dear Esther
. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
is meant to be taken slowly, absorbed like a good book dripping with detail. The ending may not exactly be the most surprising and some may find themselves a little disappointed. But the journey towards it is full of heart and imagination. Much in the way that Ethan Carter himself is.
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